Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Autobiography of Mark Twain; Volume I - Book Review

This very large and heavy book seems destined to be one of those tomes people purchase because they think they should own it, but which end up prominently displayed on coffee tables everywhere, read by very few. That's a real shame, because this autobiography presents Twain as an engaging and interesting person who, during his consequential life, encountered many of the intellectual and political giants of the second half of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries. While I had asked for the book as a Christmas gift, I must admit to feeling dismayed when I opened the book, hefted it, surveyed the layout, and thought what a slog it would be to work through it. The book is 716 pages long and weighs 4.5 pounds. The main text is 467 pages long ( Introduction pp. 1 – 58, Preliminary manuscripts and dictations pp 61 – 189, The first volume of Twain's dictations pp. 203 – 467, Explanatory Notes pp. 469 – 650, Appendices and Index pp. 651 – 736) Despite all the page turning the book requires to read it carefully, I'm glad I asked. The Autobiography is so filled with illuminating incidents and fascinating encounters that it is must reading for any Twin enthusiast or person interested in American intellectual or social history.

Twain made a number of stabs at writing his autobiography before finally being convinced to sit down with a stenographer over a period of a couple of years beginning in January of 1906. The current book, Volume I of a projected three, ends with a dictation dated March 30, 1906. Twain refused to adhere to a chronological account of his life, and the editors have wisely chosen to allow his mind to wander where it will without seeking to force the account into a more conventional format. Twain said, “... I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble – a course which follows no specified route, and can never reach an end while I am alive....” (441) He intends his autobiography to be a map of his consciousness and realizes full well that no such work can ever be complete, because the subject's every waking moment cannot be recorded and continues to grow. Twain also insisted that the Autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death, thus the initial publication in 2010 with additional volumes to follow, although much of it has already seen print in other volumes. In the current text, Twain becomes more forthcoming about political issues as he apparently becomes more comfortable with dictating his memoirs. A recent radio interview Robert H. Hirst, executive editor of the entire project, indicated that subsequent volumes contain more of Twain's social, political and religious thought, often bitter and deeply satirical, well worthy of allowing a hundred years to elapse before publishing it.

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

Samuel L. Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, MO and soon moved to Hannibal, MO where he spent most of his childhood in a life not unlike that described in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 1848 he became an apprentice in a local print shop and began his journey toward becoming a world famous writer and speaker. Clemens early took the pen name of Mark Twain, but was known interchangeably by both names for much of his life. His role, during much of his life would be what we now characterize as “Public Intellectual,” that is, he spoke and wrote extensively. He first came to public notice through his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County” and was seldom out of the public eye until his death in 1910. He married well, moved to Hartford, CT, invested unwisely and was forced to live in Europe for a decade, was saved financially by Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers, and died a beloved and cranky figure who both reflected the growth of America and created our imagination of who we are through his writing and speaking. As a primer for this autobiography, I would recommend a thorough reading of Ron Powers excellent general biography.

Twain reveals himself through what he chooses to talk about, how he remembers his own experiences, and his discursiveness. When talking about the lost of members of his family, his writing takes on a lyrical quality. During his life his son and two of his three daughters as well as his often invalid wife died. His writing about the death of his daughter Suzy at age twenty-four and his wife Olivia after more than thirty years of marriage is often heart rending. He inserts significant portions of Suzy's biography of him, written when she was a teen, which illuminates from a different perspective the man and father he was. He captures fully the human capacity for surviving shock and then continues in detail to describe his young daughter's life and death, as well as his response to it. On the other hand, his treatment of John D. Rockefeller's twisted logic in rationalizing his own wealth while teaching a Sunday school class is barbed and carefully targeted. He writes with respect and affection about his friend Ulysses S. Grant, who he saved from bankruptcy by publishing his memoirs just as Grant was dying from cancer. The proceeds from these excellent volumes allowed Grant's wife Julia to live in comfort for the rest of her life. His accounts of his lifelong friendships with the Rev. Joseph Twichell of Hartford and editor/writer William Dean Howells shed light on both the subjects and upon Twain himself as a friend. For people concerned about Twain's racial attitudes, particularly the use of the word “Nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, this volume presents much to show that Twain was no racist. His language, used for several purposes, including capturing the times and showing Huck's increasing awareness of Jim as a human being, was satirical and instructive rather than demeaning. His voluminous correspondence attests to his loyalty as a friend and the importance of childhood memories to his massive lifelong production.

The lengthy explanatory notes (181 pages worth) are placed conveniently in the back of the book, thus never becoming intrusive, but always available for readers wishing further information about the people named in the text. I began reading the Autobiography determined not to read the notes, but succumbed and was then glad I did. They're filled with valuable information elucidating much not made completely clear in the text. While referring to them as I read sometimes slowed forward progress, I often found them interesting, and sometimes they revealed information I really needed to make the connections and understand the situations. How you use these resources is a matter of preference. Some people may read straight through this volume, while others will dip into it here and there. Some will prefer to read the notes while reading the text, others at the end of a selection. Regardless of how you approach this volume, it provides a full meal of Mark Twain, perhaps to the point of indigestion.

Robert L. Hirst (General Editor)

Mark Twain remains perhaps the most quotable of all American writers. Plowing through this volume I wrote pages of notes. Many of the incidents he describes are at least interesting and frequently arresting as he sifts through a lifetime of experiences around the world, still mining them for the interesting, curious, and enlightening moments. His rage at the U.S.'s slaughter of the remaining Moro natives in the Philippines is devastating, while the extended riff on a villa near Florence where he and his family lived is way too long for his desired picture of the American woman married to an impoverished Italian nobleman. But the gems are sometimes submerged in the flood of words. The book is structured in such a way that it can serve as both a specialist's source and a general reader's delight, but it is not to everyone's taste.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume I is published by the huge Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California Press. It has a list price of $34.95, but is already deeply discounted. I would not recommend reading this book in its Kindle version if you have any thought of reading the notes while working through the text. At this book's retail price, it would be hard to recommend buying it at your local independent book store, but check the remaindered tables before ordering it on line.